There are a lot of iconic B-52’s one-liners. Most of them are funny. Some of them are downright surreal. Yet virtually all of them leave you feeling like you’re going down to where the love honey grows, and picking just one to sum up the entire aesthetic of these fearless Athens, Georgia New Wavers is actually harder than you’d think. Do you pick a zinger from “Love Shack”? The bizarre “Song for a Future Generation”? The wonderful guitar strut of “Private Idaho”?
There’s an abundance to choose from, but if you had to go with just one kitsch classic, it’s hard to argue with Fred Schneider giving voice to the single greatest warning cry your ears have ever heard: “There goes a narwhal!”
This, of course, comes from one of the group’s signature songs, “Rock Lobster” (which also served as their debut single back in 1978), and can be found on their 1979 self-titled debut. A funny thing about that first full-length, though: despite containing memorable tunes like “Rock Lobster” and “Planet Claire”, honest-to-goodness magic is contained within such an unassuming nine-song goof of a record. It’s more than just novelty songs. This wacky five-piece — consisting of drummer Keith Strickland, guitarist Ricky Wilson, and that inimitable trio of great vocalists: Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, and Cindy Wilson — created an entire world all their own, one where goofy and sexy could co-exist in the same song (sometimes right on the same line), where comedy wasn’t made without a great sense of songcraft behind it, and, best of all, absolutely nothing else sounds like it, either when it was released or even now.
While their formation story has been told several times over — what with this group of Athens, Georgia friends jamming at a local Chinese restaurant before playing their first-ever gig at a friend’s house on Valentine’s Day in 1977, soon naming themselves after a kitschy 1960s hairdo, their first single “Rock Lobster” becoming an underground hit before Island Records president Chris Blackwell wound up producing the group’s debut — and while their legacy has been defined by late 1980s/early 1990s landmarks like “Love Shack” and “Roam”, their finest artistic statement remains that simple nine-track debut effort. On their early 1980s albums, they still managed to find moments where they truly managed to rock out, but their debut album was the only time that they truly managed to be sexy as well.
There are few debut albums that have arrived as fully-formed as The B-52’s. From the opening B-movie narrative of “Planet Claire” to the closing cover of Petula Clark’s signature song “Downtown”, one realizes that by taking all these junk-culture tropes (the odd jokes, the obsession with all things vintage) and wrapping them in sturdy, polished songs with a bit of a gritty production finish, you have something no one could have expected from a group so often written off as a mere novelty band: genuinely human moments. Underneath those monster hairdos, there are big brains and beating hearts, and even when a lot of the band’s lyrics consist of nothing but lists (see: dance crazes, invented fish, just girls’ names), their lasting impact is greater and more memorable than some would argue it has any right to be.
Although the album’s commercial success has been modest (although it never charted higher than #59 on the Billboard 200, it has gone platinum, making it the band’s second-best-selling album after 1989’s Cosmic Thing), the pure emotional power of this album isn’t lost on everyone: VH1 named it #99 on their list of the 100 greatest albums ever made, while Rolling Stone placed it at #152 on their own list of the 500 greatest. Everyone knows “Rock Lobster”, but few people know the rest of the joyous pieces that make up the awesome power The B-52’s. We dance this mess around, get out our lava lamps, and explore why the B-52’s’ debut album is one of the best pop albums ever made.
1. “Planet Claire”
One of the first concerts I went to was where the Royal Crown Revue opened for the Pretenders, who opened for the B-52’s. While I was excited for the concert itself, it also served as a way to settle a bet me and my dad had: whether or not it was a synthesizer or either Kate Pierson’s/Cindy Wilson’s voice that served as the ominous opening wail to “Planet Claire”, the first track off of the B-52’s’ very first album. We were both right, but my dad was still stunned at just how well Pierson’s warble went with the vintage synths that they used to create the B-movie atmosphere that proved so crucial to “Planet Clarie’s” success.
Opening with the sounds of scant radio frequencies before Ricky Wilson’s propulsive guitar notes come in, the entire first half is instrumental, as it appeared to be far more important to establish the world of the B-52’s before any words were to be inserted into it. Also, it’s worth noting that if that opening strut of a riff sounds familiar, that’s because it’s is an unintentionally sped-up take on Henry Mancini’s classic number “Peter Gunn”. Although Mancini has subsequently credited as a co-songwriter, such accreditation happened long after the fact, as even the CD release of the album still only cites Fred Schneider and Keith Strickland as the track’s masterminds.
So with Ricky’s guitar, the band’s use of bongos, and Kate’s indelible synth harmonizing, “Planet Claire” absolutely bleeds 1950s schlock novelty, ready to soundtrack a party lit only by lava lamps or perhaps serve as the soundtrack to a film about some rather swingin’ aliens. Then, at 2:30 on the dot, Schneider enters with that instantly memorable opening salvo:
“She came from Planet Claire– “Planet Claire”
I knew she came from there
She drove a Plymouth Satellite
Faster than the speed of light”
Obviously, these are not meant to be taken too seriously, but it’s Schneider’s straight-ahead vocal cadence that ultimately sells the song. These aren’t “sung lyrics” as much as they are stone-cold facts, and that distinction in performance is what ultimately helps sell the song despite its otherwise clownish qualities.
As the narrative continues, we also hear how no one ever dies on Planet Claire, and no one has a head (and there’s also a memorable passage wherein Schneider immediately corrects those spreading false rumors about the alien babe at the center of the song). It’s pure absurdism, almost childlike in nature, but the whole reason why “Planet Claire” and the rest of The B-52’s works is because the band does all of this with a straight face. During latter albums, there’s an overwhelming sense that the band is “in” on the joke, and many of the tracks the group penned during the late ’80s are intentionally campy, which is a marked difference from here, wherein their commitment to the crazy is so absolute, the average listener doesn’t know if the band is even conscious of how wacky this all sounds (perhaps they truly believe in each and every out-there utterance!).
Thus, while some may view “Planet Claire” as dismissible and nothing more than a novelty, the commitment to character that shines through this performance is what sells it, and, for many, this proved to be the pitch-perfect introduction into the world of the B-52’s. Although the song was only a minor hit, going as high as #24 on the Billboard dance charts, it’s grown over time to serve as one of the group’s out-and-out calling cards, also doubling over as the opening song to Time Capsule, the group’s excellent greatest hits comp that came out in 1998. The B-52’s’ sonic universe is one of quirks, odd turns, and then even more quirks. so as an introduction to that world, it’s hard to top that first trip out to “Planet Claire”.
2. “52 Girls”
“52 Girls” is only the second song on the B-52’s first album, and despite never being released as a single, it has gone on to become a cult pop classic of the highest order — and all they do is just list the names of girls.
One of the most remarkable things about The B-52’s and something they were never able to fully capture in any album since then was creating not just a distinct sound, but getting right on down to creating a distinct guitar tone. Although there are unamplified guitar rock tunes aplenty in the great rock landscape, with everyone from Blondie to Prince able to turn those ringing strings into New Wave pop hits, there was a certain grit to Chris Blackwell’s production on this album, somewhat punk in the most arguable of ways but more than anything, it’s just a great damn melody.
From the opening one-two drum hits to Ricky Wilson’s confident and plucky strumming, “52 Girls” wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter. With the oscillating notes during the verses, Wilson gives Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson that perfect amount of room to land their vocals, which are remarkably unadorned, given a raw treatment that makes it sound like they are recording in a small concrete room. There’s no studio gloss and perhaps that’s why “52 Girls” has a certain kind of sexiness to it. It’s primal energy, somewhat aggressive but built upon a strong melody, and, amazingly, you just might be compelled to call it a bit sexy as well.
I mentioned in the introduction that, yes, “sexy” is actually an applicable term for this record, but that’s largely due to the fact that even when tackling goofy alien themes or creating what some would argue are just novelty songs about lobsters, there was a total lack of self-consciousness on this LP that the B-52’s were never able to recreate in full down the line. On later albums, they “played” kitsch as an angle; on this one, they were kitsch. Fred Schneider’s conviction on “Planet Claire”, the pummeling rock thump of “Lava”, the seductive groove of “Dance This Mess Around” — these weren’t mere poses, no. They were presented in a way where you fully believed in what they were saying, and that otherworldly confidence gives these songs depth that go well beyond what’s listed in the lyric sheets.
“52 Girls” exemplifies this trait to a T. In terms of lyrics, Kate and Cindy simply list off names of girls (including their own), and only note that you can “see them on the beach / Or in New York City”. Although they say that these are the “principle girls” in the USA, their only other challenge is to see if you, the listener, can name them today. That’s it. These are not the topics that great insight can be culled from, but when married with Wilson’s multi-tiered melodies and Keith Strickland’s well-placed tom hits, there is thunderous energy that’s generated with Kate and Cindy shout out “Name them all today!” It’s not defiant so much as it is simply empowered, and although some can try and parse these spare verses for meaning, the band’s performance tells us everything we need to know. It truly is meaning implied through presentation, and during this time in history, absolutely no one could do that better than the B-52’s.
Despite never seeing the light of day commercially, the B-52’s seemed to understand early on what kind of otherworldly magic they had captured with “52 Girls”, and it was given a do-over on their ill-fated 1981 remix EP Party Mix!. As with most of the tracks on that cheap cash-in, the “52 Girls” remix removes everything that made the original such a thrill: the guitars sound flat, the drums are processed and tinny, and, worst of all, Kate and Cindy’s vocals are given some bubbly and inoffensive studio clarity, essentially neutering the raw nature of the original in just about every way imaginable. (Fun fact: adding dog yelps near the end also doesn’t help the cause.)
One awful remix aside, “52 Girls” basically has “fan favorite” written all over it: not only did the song become a live staple, but it also appeared on both the band’s 1998 and 2002 best-of compilations, one of the few non-singles to garner such a spotlight. What’s more, hard rock bands have actually taken quite the liking to the tune, with punk-pop stalwarts the Offspring actually covering it on an obscure 1991 compilation called Contains No Caffeine. While some of the more upbeat party pop tracks wound up defining the B-52’s in the mainstream, it was songs like “52 Girls” that truly endeared them to their fans. There are actually some contingents of fans that actually call it their best song and it’s hard to argue against that claim.
3. “Dance This Mess Around”
When people think of the B-52’s, they often think of fun, silly, and energetic party-pop songs, and for good reason: a great majority of the hits they’re remembered for fit this bill to a T, filled with call-and-response vocals and rather buoyant melodies. Sometimes they were goofy, sometimes they were a bit more traditional with their themes, but they were always a lot of people’s one-stop-shop for good times and fun rhymes.
However, what may arguably be the single greatest song they’ve ever created retains none of these features. “Dance This Mess Around” is filled with longing, a bit of rage, and a vibe that is downright sultry, the soundtrack to a late-night slow jam in a room lit by nothing but lava lamps. There has never been a B-52’s song quite like it, but, most distressingly, they never attempted to go after this vibe ever again.
The first song on The B-52’s that was written by the entire band, “Dance This Mess Around” opens with an incessant 1960s keyboard bounce that matches a thick, descending bassline and Ricky Wilson’s open strum guitar chords, creating an atmosphere that’s unusually sparse in comparison to the rest of the band’s work. Once Cindy Wilson’s voice comes in, though, she sings with a quiet, understated tone, one that’s more reflective than celebratory. “Remember”, she starts, “when you held my hand?” Then, as Fred Schneider’s surprisingly haunting toy piano plinks join in, Cindy delivers a much more personal query: “I say remember / When you were my man?”
Although playing things close to the heart has never been the band’s MO, there are still a few songs that have hinted at deeper, raw emotions, and “Dance This Mess Around” truly shows the group with their guard let down. The song’s second half distracts us from the emotional inquiries at the onset, naming lots of non-existent dances like “The Aqua Velva” and “The Shy Tuna” while Cindy engages Fred in more call-and-response vocals (“Doesn’t that make you feel a whole lot better?” she asks; “Huh?” is what she gets in response).
Yet even with the veil of silliness drawn part-way through, there are few goosebump-inducing moments as potent as when Cindy screams the song’s pre-chorus during that first verse: “Why don’t you dance with me?! / I’m not no Limburger!” While referencing a particular type of cheese assuredly falls within the nonsense-driven lyrical universe that the B-52’s inhabit, the passion in which Cindy screeches out “Why don’t you dance with me?” is that of a woman scorned, confused, and breaking. Prior to this, she asks her mystery man to “roll it over in your mind”, referring to the idea that she doesn’t need her heart broken again. The actual lyrics, sparse as they may be, only hint at so much, but Cindy’s performance sells us on a pain that is much deeper than what is superficially there. Name all the dances you want, but the narrator of his song is hurting, and, also, is not cheese.
As always, some well-placed unamplified strums by Ricky Wilson end up creating a unique and foreboding atmosphere, as the song goes through enough dynamic shifts to keep things interesting even though it’s all rooted in the same melody line. The band would go on to write songs keeping this sort of sparseness on their second album (see: “Dirty Back Road” from 1980’s Wild Planet), but rarely were they able to recreate this kind of emotional intensity in later works.
The song was released as the third and final single from the B-52’s’ debut album, and although it reached #24 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play charts, it failed to break through to the mainstream even after the group played it during their appearance on the January 26th, 1980 episode of Saturday Night Live (with host Teri Garr). Some raw footage from 1978 shows just how raw-nerve the song could be given the circumstances, but, really, true B-52’s fans have known this track for years as not only one of the finest tunes the group has ever composed but also one of the absolute best tracks of the era, commercial recognition be damned. This, along with “52 Girls”, are the kind of songs that gave the band’s debut its distinct personality, and it’s for this reason that it’s a shame they never came close to matching it ever again.